“The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well-prepared to receive them” — Joseph Henry, Director of the Smithsonian, 1877
Have you ever discovered a $20 bill in an old jacket pocket while searching for something else? If you have, you experienced serendipity, which is formally defined as “a phenomenon of accidentally finding something good.”
It’s widely accepted that serendipity plays a key role in scientific discovery and technological innovation. There are many reported cases of scientists and inventors making monumental discoveries while looking for something else entirely. Examples include penicillin, X-rays, insulin, quinine for Malaria, the electric battery, the pacemaker, and let’s not forget corn flakes, Velcro and Viagra. A serendipitous encounter doesn’t have to be on the scale of discovering penicillin to be significant. It can impact even a simple undertaking, such as a theme for a new marketing campaign or product feature.
Serendipity is especially important to information professionals because it plays a key role in knowledge work. On the simplest level, we all know the feeling of discovering a long-forgotten book or paper that provided a fantastic solution to a nagging question. On a deeper level, serendipity can be a godsend to addressing information-intensive business challenges.
But as is often the case when something is identified as beneficial for business, numerous attempts have been made to make serendipity a repeatable process. Is this even possible?
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Can You Engineer Serendipity?
It’s surprising how much energy has gone into trying to build a “serendipity engine” and enlist it for knowledge-based work. The advent of the internet, with its distinct form of information organization best typified by the Google search engine, has fueled a discussion about whether it has increased or decreased the likelihood of serendipitous encounters while researching a subject.
A 2006 blog storm set the tone for the continued dialogue. It started with technology writer and advocate Steven Johnson calling the web “the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture” (my emphasis). Johnson cited the website BoingBoing as evidence of web-generated serendipity, saying, “It’s no accident that BoingBoing is the most popular blog online — it’s popular because it’s an incredible randomizer, sending you off on all these crazy and unpredictable paths.”
Humanities professor Alan Jacobs quickly rebuffed Johnson, writing, “it’s nuts to think that I now have more serendipity than I did before. When I used to rely on print dictionaries or encyclopedias, I would very often forget what I was looking for because, in thumbing the pages, I would stumble across all sorts of interesting words or topics, which would lead me to look up other interesting words or topics, along the way to which I would be distracted by yet other words or topics that I had never seen before.”
Technology writer and media critic Nicholas Carr agreed with Johnson, noting anecdotally that he found, “I come across a heck of a lot more random stuff today than I did before I went online,” but rejected the ‘web as serendipity engine’ idea, quipping “once you create an engine — a machine — to produce serendipity, you destroy the essence of serendipity. It becomes something expected rather than something unexpected.”
In 2010 Google floated the idea of building a serendipity engine, but never built one. Some say Google search is itself a serendipity engine, to which Carr scoffs, “Google filters out serendipity in favor of insularity. It douses the infectious messiness of a city with an algorithmic antiseptic.”
Thirteen years after the initial blog storm, research findings remain inconclusive on whether the organization of digitized information in today’s internet increases, decreases or makes no difference in a person’s prospects for serendipitous encounters. So what alternatives do we have?
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Recommendation Engines to the Rescue?
Recommendation engines are increasingly displacing traditional forms of information selection. Rather than going to a public library or bookstore to get ideas for what to read next, we now rely upon Amazon recommendations, just as we rely on Netflix and YouTube recommendations for what to watch, and Google recommendations for what and where to eat.
This is a profound shift. Because unlike libraries or bookstores, recommendation engines are designed to keep you engaged with an app. They are purposefully optimized to drive you to another click within the app itself. As such, what they offer is not a random choice that might lead to serendipitous discovery, but rather a set of selections the recommendation engine is quite certain you will click on, based on sophisticated machine learning models of past behaviors.
You might be asking “who cares?’”
If recommend engines present choices we eventually select, doesn’t that mean these are good selections? Perhaps, but they are unlikely to lead to serendipitous discoveries. And the basic premise is creating the opportunity for serendipitous encounters has led to some of the most impactful discoveries and inventions in history. We risk trading away innovation for convenience. Is it worth it? I believe the stakes are too high to give up on serendipity.
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Tips for Increasing the Odds for Serendipity
With that in mind, here are five tips to enlarge your odds of serendipitous encounters:
- Change your daily routine — for example, if you normally drive to work, take a different route or leave the car at home and take the train. The change of pace not only helps spark chance encounters, but the novelty brought on by novel surroundings will open you up to absorbing new experiences.
- When you are searching for something on the web, ignore the first few pages of search results. Skip to the fifth page of results and see what kind of interesting links appear. Skip to the 10th page of results — the farther you go, the more varied the results. You will almost be guaranteed to find something unexpected.
- When you are out walking or riding the bus, train or flying in an airplane, make an effort to look around you. Read the billboards, the airline magazine; take note of what other people are reading around you. You’ll be amazed at how much you didn’t notice. Do this long enough and you will be guaranteed to stumble upon something new and interesting.
- Seek out podcasts that aren’t normally on your radar screen. For example, if you listen to technology podcasts, subscribe to one about sports, or humor, or car repair — something wildly outside your normal sphere of interest. Using this method gave me an idea to do an information management webinar based on Marie Kondo’s method for tidying up.
- Disconnect from your mobile devices when you are out and about. One of the conditions for experiencing serendipity is to be open to chance encounters. When you are glued to your device, you reduce the chances you will notice something unexpected that is going on around you.
Finally, if you happened to stumble upon this article by accident, I hope you got a thing or two that can help you in your daily experience. It may just prove that serendipity really works.